Campus Interviews: The Money Round

by Tom Wright

In the last couple of months, this blog seems to have taken more of a turn toward “ruminations of mathematicians,” so I figured that it was time to shake things up with a good old professional advice column. Here’s one on campus interviews:

So you’ve gone through the rigors of an initial meeting. Perhaps you’ve impressed a school with your ideas about teaching basic courses; perhaps you convinced them of your dedication to undergraduate research; perhaps you told them a whole bunch of lies and they bought them all. However you did it, congratulations (and far be it from me to judge you)! Now, you’ve reached the final stage candidacy: the campus interview.

The campus interview is an interesting beast. It’s a bit like a third date; you both know each other, you’re both interested, you’ve stalked each other a bit online, and now you’re finally trying to suss out whether it’s time to move into a more serious (not to mention financially interdependent) relationship. While it’s still important to show that you’ve done your research and know a bit about the school, your ultimate goal should be to give the school a good impression of who you are. You don’t need to do anything drastic to stand out; you’ve already done that, or you wouldn’t have been invited. Here, you just want to present the real you (not too real, though – dropping a string of expletives is still a bad idea) and let the school decide if that’s who they need for the position.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to present yourself if you’re not tired, hungry, or unprepared. To that end, I’ve compiled a short list of things that you should absolutely be ready for as you enter this final stage of candidacy:

Plan to be tired. The enduring memory I have of my first campus interview was how unbelievably tired I was when I was in the airport waiting for my flight home. Trying to make a good impression on everyone you meet is exhausting, and you’ll definitely start to feel it as the interview wears on.

To that end, remember to pace yourself. It’s easy to get hyped up on adrenaline, caffeine, and sugar for your morning interviews, but that just makes the afternoon crash all the worse. Moreover, if you caffinate (like I do), know that you may not have a lot of down time to grab a coffee or soda, so you’re going to go through a mid-morning crash or mid-afternoon crash, you may want to plan how you’re going to get around that, either by raising the morning and lunchtime doses, bringing an extra bottle of soda to open around 10:30 and/or 2:30, or whatever other creative idea you have for feeding or controlling your addiction.

(This was particularly important for me because I drink a ton of caffeine. In fact, I can think of two schools where if you asked them about their impressions of me, the first thing they would probably say is, “He drinks enough caffeine to kill a horse.” Oddly, one of those schools offered me the job.).


Embrace your inner Oliver Twist – don’t be afraid to bring some extra granola bars or other easily stored and consumed snacks so that you’re not hungry all day. You’ll note that in your schedule, schools will usually block off times that are designated as “breakfast” or “lunch”. Quite often, these are lies. What happens instead could be more aptly described as “someone puts a bunch of food in front of you, and then you sit and answer questions as the food gets cold.”

Mind you, that’s the best case scenario. I’ve also had a school forget to make arrangements for breakfast, and I’ve had a school arrange that I eat at a school-run restaurant where the order took so long that I had to leave without eating at all. Granted, most schools obviously try not to do this, but this is one of those places where you may not have a ton of timely recourse if something goes wrong; you can probably find a break at some point in the morning to run off and grab something (your interviewers will likely help you with this because they’re probably mortified that things started so badly – in fact, in the case of my food never arriving, my interviewer is still mortified about it a year later), but that may well be after you’ve already met the dean and provost (something schools often like to schedule for the early morning) on an empty stomach.

Pay particular attention to this advice if you are vegetarian (which I’m not, but I’m throwing this out there for anyone who is) or have other dietary restrictions. Interviewers will usually ask if you have dietary restrictions, but there’s no guarantee that they will understand your specific scenario (many people have very different definitions of the word “vegetarian”), and even if a restaurant has a vegetarian option, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s going to be something you’d enjoy.

Incidentally, a colleague of mine claims that she lost two-and-a-half pounds on her most recent interview. This is not uncommon. If you ever want to go on a diet and lose some weight, just schedule a bunch of campus interviews.

You are always being interviewed. The interview starts as soon as you meet somebody from the school. It ends when you are dropped off at the airport or when you get in your car to drive home. Between those two times, assume that whoever is in the room with you is interviewing you unless he or she is a janitor or works for campus security. Even if somebody tells you that they are not on the hiring committee, people talk.

Which reminds me – a good way to make a good impression is…

Ask questions to everybody. If you can’t think of new questions, ask the same questions to different people. It’s an easy way to get interviewers to feel like you’re actually interested in them. Also, it’s a well-established fact that the best way to get someone to like you is to ask them questions and let them talk about themselves (as long as you’re not coming off like the Inquisition); interviewers are
people, too.

If you are invited for an interview, you will give a talk. It’s the law. However, much as it seems weird to say, your talk is the easiest part of the whole day. You are likely the expert in the room on your topic, and you’ve had ample opportunity to prepare; there’s no reason for you not to do well.

In a related aside, if you are in the process of applying for jobs, you are going to need a job talk. Generally, there are four types of job talks that you could be asked to give: a talk about your research to colleagues in your area, a talk about your research to colleagues not in your area, a talk about some topic of interest (whatever you choose) for undergrads, and a fake class where you teach some topic in an introductory class (in math, this is usually calculus 1 or 2, and the topic is usually chosen by the department). You can probably guess which types of talks would correspond to which types of schools. Even before you get to the stage of being invited for campus interviews, you may want to think about and possibly sketch out what you would say in each of the different types of talks (well, you can skip the fourth one for now, but the point still stands).

Similarly, one of the most common questions you will get throughout your campus interview is, “I’m sorry I can’t make your talk this afternoon; my (spouse/child/parent) has a (flight to catch/root canal/Nobel Prize acceptance speech) and I have to give him or her a ride. What is your talk about?” Have a thirty second synopsis of your talk ready for this.

Which brings me to another point…

There are some questions that will show up in every interview. Know the answers. These questions include:

1.) Why do you want to work here? (There’s a fantastic blog post about this here).
2.) What are your feelings about our school’s mission?
3.) What is/was your job talk about? (as promised above)
4.) What courses do you like to teach?
5.) What’s your research?

Much like the job talk, these questions are easy because you know they’re coming and have ample time to prepare for them. However, when you’re thinking about your answers, realize that these questions will be asked by all kinds of people; you may find yourself explaining your research to the department chair, the school president, and an undergrad, so you may want to prepare a couple of variants for each answer.

And finally…

Have fun! Much as it seems weird to say, this is the fun part; you get to go to different parts of the country, eat in new and expensive restaurants on some other school’s dime, and meet new people who may become lifelong friends (even if you don’t get the job). If it goes well, you’ll have a job offer shortly, and if it doesn’t, you’ll have some interesting experiences and some great fodder for future blog posts. Good luck!

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